Title Writing Prompt Challenge Round 9 — Perry Broxson Submission

This is the Ninth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.

The Round 9 Title — Behind the Green Door — was chosen by Perry. I’ll choose the title for the next round.

As a reminder, the writing challenge has no restrictions, and the stories span various genres. Most of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range, with a few pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines, but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).

This, then, is Perry’s submission.

And, here’s the blurb for this story:
Rocco D’Angelo wanted to be his generation’s next Philip Marlow – the preeminent Private Investigator. But he screwed up and got a girl killed. Now, in the latter years of his abject career, he gets one final opportunity to redeem himself. However, the mission is virtually impossible. It’s his task to rescue a baby . . . a baby that died 30 years prior, unbaptized. It’s Rocco’s job to save her from Infant Purgatory!

Behind the Green Door

Copyright 2022 — Perry Broxson

(5,225 words – approx. reading time: about 20 minutes based on 265 WPM)

The front side of Rocco D’Angelo’s business card consisted of one word: “Dick.” The back side – for those that bothered to look – read:

Rocco D’Angelo:
Licensed Private Investigator
A Dick that won’t quit.

Rocco drank too much and slept too little. He was a hard-boiled brute with zero fucks to give for the feelings and fragilities of his fellow man. Rocco was forty-nine going on ninety-nine. He’d seen too much shit . . . caused too much shit . . . and ultimately, ate too much shit.

Dicking was a fun job in his twenties and thirties. The thrill. The hunt. The heroism. Now, slurping bourbon from a Marvel cup, the entire enterprise of Private Investigation seemed empty and pathetic. He looked around his studio apartment, hoping to see a rat. On this one occasion in his nearly five decades of life, he was not disappointed. It was a big sucker and it was daintily chewing the goop-filled carapace of a headless, squirming cockroach.

“Perfect,” Rocco said to the caped superhero on his Marvel cup. “The perfect metaphor for my fucking life . . . dead, and too dumb to know it.”

He tugged on the pressboard drawer of his nightstand. Two objects appeared. A gun and his dead mother’s Catholic bible. A pang of guilt stabbed him. The old gal had prayed daily that he become a Priest. And, yes, he was right on track, studying Latin and his catechisms. That was, until he discovered pussy and booze.

Rocco shoved the bible aside and took the pistol. It was his .38 revolver: tried, trusty, and true. Money, women, and respect had come and gone. But the revolver remained. Sadly, aside from the rat, it was his only companion.

He pressed the toroid bore to his temple as he had a thousand times before. “Do it,” he goaded. “I double-dog dare you . . . you cowardly cockroach.” He felt the trigger bend in the crook of his finger. He heard the report and saw the splatter . . . or imagined he did. Those were the things that always stopped him. The noise and the mess.

“Your mommy doesn’t work here,” he told himself. “Clean up after yourself.”

Who would do it? he wondered. Who would get the shit job of mopping his grey goop off the grey walls? Would his slumlord hire some Mexican lady with six kids and a deadbeat baby-daddy?

Rocco knew about shit jobs. In the last ten years, that was his staple. Sitting in his shitty Chevy with his Kodak camera, waiting for the money shot – waiting for the cheating man or woman to expose their shitty selves to the celluloid. Yes, he still used film. What of it?

There’d been the Big Case a decade ago. The case that was going to propel him to the top of his chosen trade, turn him into second-coming of Philip Marlowe. The case involved a kidnapping. The daughter of a hotshot Hollywood agent was snatched from a food court in a city mall in broad daylight. She was sixteen and her name was Celeste. She ran cross-country and played volleyball for her high school. She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful human Rocco had ever seen. He still carried her photo in his wallet.

It wasn’t sexual. He didn’t yank out the photo and wank his crank. Nothing like that. It was an aesthetic thing – her flawless face was perfectly symmetrical; her hair was Rumplestiltskinian – golden tresses, woven from straw. And her eyes. My God, he could write poetry about those eyes. The clear, crystalline quality, lit with a cerulean blue so brilliant that it caused Gods to squabble with envy. But mostly, it was the purity of the potential that radiated from her face. There was nothing – no thing – which Celeste couldn’t have accomplished. Cancer – cured. Hunger – sated. Hate – placated.

As the designated bagman, he had one job on that day ten years ago: Drop off the cash and collect the prize – Celeste. But the bad guys did what bad guys never do in movies. They counted out the one million dollars. It took them three hours, with six guys counting one-hundred-dollar bills. But they did it. And guess what? Daddy came up short by ten-thousand bucks. Was it an error? Daddy’s doing? The banker’s fault? The kidnappers’ miscount?

Rocco didn’t know. He had a hard time believing Daddy would welsh on chump change, but the love of money was the root of all evil.

And there was no shortage of evil that day. The leader of the gang – a cherubic man-lad that called himself Jackal – slashed Celeste’s neck with a switchblade. Rocco couldn’t believe it. All that cash, stacked and sorted on a king-sized bed in a Motel 8 . . . wasn’t enough. The ransom fell short by a lousy 1%.

It was the “principal of the thing,” Jackal said, guffawing through his gold grill.

Rocco pulled the tried, trusty, and true revolver that was strapped to his leg. In a blind fit of fury, he shot six bullets into six heads, killing the kidnappers. Jackal was the last to die. Rocco bashed him with the gun butt as he bled from his ears.

It was his bravest day. Ironically, his most heroic moment. But he’d failed. Celeste was dead. And so was his aspirations of investigative greatness.

Now. Ten years on. He was just a Dick. Only a Dick.


 Rocco dropped the cylinder of his .38 and removed three rounds with the ejector rod. “Fifty-fifty,” he said to no one. “Better than Vegas odds.” He studied the cracked handle, the break in the butt of his gun that he’d repaired with wood glue ten years prior.

He spun the cylinder with his thumb and then snapped it into place. With no hesitation, he pressed it to his temple and fired. There was the disappointing click, and that was all. It could have been the snick of a switchblade opening, like the one Jackal had used. Or a teenage girl’s teeth clashing . . . as her neck reddened into a rictus.

Rocco spun it again and fired. Click.

He cursed and did it again. Click.

He exhaled. Then he took a long draught of bitter whisky from the Marvel cup and kissed the barrel of his one tried, trusty, and true friend. As he squinted his eyes and squeezed the trigger, there was a knock at his door.

“Go away,” Rocco shouted. “I’m not here.”

“Package,” the voice said.

 “Go away,” Rocco repeated. “I don’t want it.”

Rocco heard the courier say asshole. The curse was followed by the thud of the package as he dropped it in the hallway. Finally, he heard receding footfalls.

Rocco looked at his empty Marvel cup, then at his half-empty revolver, then at his unpainted apartment door. Curiosity blossomed in his inebriated brain. “A package,” he muttered. “I didn’t order anything. Who would send . . . fuck . . . what the fuck is it?”

He felt an echo of the tingle he’d felt when he was on top of his game. Curiosity, a chum had once told him, was the lust of the mind. Rocco could relate. The old tingle spread from his brain to his groin in spastic sparks.

“Package,” he said, licking bourbon from the stubble of his mustache. He pitched the pillows off the bed and swung his feet to the floor. “For me?”

 Slowly, Rocco opened the door. Sure enough, there was a package. It was Overnight Priority. From Italy. And printed quite distinctly was his name: Rocco D’Angelo, PI.

He brought it inside and placed it on the bed. He stared at it, as if trying to intuit its contents with psychic powers. Anxious, he raced back to the door and locked it. Then, with the deliberation of a surgeon opening a body, he opened the box.

“A book,” he said to the book. “Who would send me a book?” As if in reply, a leaflet fell from the pages and landed next to the three bullets he’d ejected. The note read:

Dear Mr. D’Angelo,

I trust this letter finds you hale and hearty. You don’t know me; but I’ve made it my business to know you. I am Benito Valerio, the father of the Jacobi Valerio . . . you may know him by his nom de plume, Jackal.

Please, do not think this letter is a condemnation of your lethal actions on October 4th, ten years ago today. It is not. You killed my son that day. But to me, Jacobi was already dead.

I have thought about you over the years, Rocco – may I call you Rocco? You killed six men that day – quite impressive. Jacobi deserved it. Despite his immense privilege, he chose a felonious path. And I, as his father, deserved the pain of losing him, for I raised the “Jackal.” You see, I lost a child before Jacobi was conceived. She died the day she was born. Her name was Bella, and she meant more to me than the wealth of all worlds.

If I were a psychiatrist, I’d guess that I indulged Jacobi because of the grief I felt when Bella died. She was so pure. So full of potential.

            Rocco stopped, gobsmacked. He read the phrase “so full of potential” six more times, holding his breath all the while. He exhaled and said it to the room . . . to the rat. “So full of potential . . . that was me . . . and that was Celeste.”

            He continued reading the letter.

Enough exposition. No one wants to hear an old man’s songs of sorrow. I will forego the history and get down to brass tacks, as they say. Rocco, I wish to retain your services as a Private Investigator. I will bequeath you half of my fortune (estimated at two billion U.S. currency) if you find and retrieve my daughter, Bella. She will be the beneficiary of the remaining one billion dollars.

If you are a comprehensive reader, you will have raised a salient question. How can I, as a Private Investigator, find and retrieve a baby girl that lived and died on the very same day – over 30 years ago?

The book, Mr. D’Angelo. The book is the answer. The answer is the book. I purchased it from a consigliere of the Vatican. Please take a moment and handle it. It’s called the Grimoire Catholicismus. I believe it is a book of magic, and if you accept this covenant, you must also believe in magic.

My deceased daughter, you see, was unbaptized. Per Catholic doctrine, it is my belief that she now resides in Infant Limbo – in the underworld. The book, Mr. D’Angelo, will reveal the location of the realm, as well as provide you with helpful spells. I’m asking you – paying you – to find her, to find my Bella, and to bring her back from this hellish realm. Bring her back to me . . . so that I can see her . . . before I die.

There’s not much time. I’m dying quite rapidly. Days, not weeks or months. Perhaps even hours.

I have lawyers and legal documents here at my bedside. If you bring Bella to me, I will sign them, and you will be obscenely rich . . . and I can die knowing that my daughter is alive and loved.

The book, Mr. D’Angelo. The Grimoire will lead you to my Bella. I bet my life on it. I also bet yours.

This is not fiction. It is not an old man’s prattling insanity – dementia, or delusion. It is a mission. Should you accept it and complete it before I perish, you will be duly redeemed.


Benito Valerio

Rocco shot a bourbon from the bottle. What the fuck had he just read? He read it again, this time parsing the words, searching for reasons to distrust Benito Valerio’s veracity. He Googled the man. He was legit. He owned vineyards in California and Italy.

“He may be a lunatic,” Rocco told the rat, “but he’s lucid. He really believes in this Catholic crap. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is.”

The rat picked his teeth with the spiny hind leg of the roach and said nothing.

 Rocco lifted the tome from the box. It was green and grizzled and if he had to guess, bound with the skin of a demon.

He laughed at that thought. Skin of a demon. Until ten minutes ago, he’d never had a fleeting thought that such things existed. He looked at the three ejected bullets on the bed, gold and grinning, like the grill of the kid he’d killed. Jacobi “Jackal” Valerio – the shitty kid that killed the golden girl, Celeste.

It was all so complicated. Dying dad loses a girl and a boy; wants the girl back; pays the man that killed the boy to retrieve the girl . . . from Limbo, no less.

This got Rocco laughing. The rat stood up on its haunches and regarded him. After a long laughing jag, Rocco reveled in the afterglow of dopamine. He hadn’t laughed, he guessed, in years – maybe ten. It felt good to feel good. Smiling, he dropped the cylinder of his tried, trusty, and true companion. With newfound purpose, he slid the three orphaned bullets back into the chamber.

For the next seventeen hours, he read the book. On the very last page, there was a crudely scrawled note. It said: Upon completion, call this number. Under the printed numbers was a signature: Virgil.


Rocco called the number. “Hello,” Rocco said. The word sounded more like a question than a greeting.

“This is Virgil,” a gruff voice replied. “Pack a bag and meet me at this address. Bring the green book and your passport.”

Rocco wrote down the address and asked, “What time do you want” –

“Yesterday would have been nice,” Virgil groused. “But I’m a mensch, so I’ll give you exactly one hour.”

“Wait,” Rocco appended, “is this on the up and up? I mean, it’s absurd . . . rescuing a baby girl from Limbo . . . does Mr. Valerio really believe this shit?”

Virgil said, “You’re the Dick. You tell me. I don’t have time to play twenty questions. Mr. Valerio is on a morphine drip. Take the job or don’t. I’ve got five detectives in the queue – each better qualified. But the Old Man asked for you . . . go figure. Bottom line: If you’re not at Valerio Private Airport in 57 minutes, I’ll assume you bitched out.”

“I’ll be there,” Rocco said, surprising himself with his eagerness. “I’ll fucking be there.”

And he was there . . . with six minutes to spare.


“I’m Virgil,” a middle-aged midget said, grabbing Rocco’s backpack. “Mr. Valerio’s jet is waiting. Follow me.”

“Where are we going?” Rocco asked. “I have my passport, like you said.”

Virgil shot him a scolding glare. “Did you read the fucking book?”

“I did.”

Virgil shook his massive head. “Then you should’ve figured it out . . . Dick.”

“I’m at a loss,” Rocco confessed. “I’m new to this spiritual stuff . . . this supernatural mumbo-jumbo.”

“Dante’,” Virgil snapped, escorting him onto the jet. “Dante’ Alighieri. The wop that wrote The Divine Comedy.”

Rocco shook his head. “Okay, I know of the guy. Dead poet. What of him?”

“We’re going to Italy,” Virgil said, “to the province of Ravenna. In the 14th century, Dante’ was exiled from Florence by the Pope. Ravenna is where he wrote his epic poem . . . about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo.”

The moment they buckled into their seats, the plane began its taxi. Rocco nodded, his brain was starting to connect the dots. “The book – the Grimoire – mentioned a portal . . . a subterranean passageway to the netherworlds. Is it there? At Dante’s estate in Ravenna?”

Virgil touched the end of Rocco’s nose with his chubby finger. “Bingo. You’re not as dumb as you look.”

Rocco made a mental note to kick the midget’s ass when this project was complete. “Anything else I should know?” he asked.

Virgil snorted, sensing the hostility. “It’s a nine-hour flight. I’d suggest you memorize as many spells as you can. Do you think your pickled brain is up to it?”

Rocco smiled as he imagined the little man’s nose exploding like a tomato. “I’ll do my best,” he said, winking at Virgil.

Virgil winked back.


Eight hours and forty-nine minutes later, they landed on a remote strip near a vineyard.

“Mr. Valerio owns this estate now,” Virgil said. “Bought out the Alighieri family five years ago . . . paid ten times its value.”

Rocco deduced, “I gather that Dante’s family didn’t know about the portal to the underworld.”

Virgil shook his misshapen head as they walked toward a stone home. It was as modest as it was ancient, strangled by vines and lichen. Virgil fetched an ancient iron key from his pocket and opened the arched door. “Inserisci per favore,” Virgil said, gesturing to his guest. “Welcome to the former home of Dante’ Alighieri, the Exalted Poet.”

Rocco stepped inside, casing the place like a criminal. The interior was severe, almost penal in its design. He imagined the great bard toiling away at the stone table, fueled by his hatred of the aristocracy that exiled him from his beloved Florence.

“I’ve got to take this call,” Virgil said, stepping outside with his phone.

Rocco noticed an ornate rug – the only adornment in the spartan building. It was a green tapestry that resembled the cover of the book, the Grimoire Catholicismus. Delicately, he lifted the rug. Its texture was tacky and damp. Skin of a demon, he thought, not for the first time. Then he saw the seam in the stone floor. It was square – four feet by four feet. His gut told him it was the hatch to the subterranean passageway.

Virgil burst back into the room. “We’ve got twelve hours tops,” he said. “Mr. Valerio is spiraling. The doctors are doing their damnedest, but . . . but . . . .”

To Rocco’s surprise, the man began to weep. Rocco put a hand on his shoulder. Virgil knocked it off and said, “Don’t touch me!”

“Okay, okay,” Rocco said.

Virgil scrubbed his eyes with his sleeve and said, “You found it . . . the hatch?”

“Yes,” Rocco replied. “I’ll need a crowbar to lift this slab.”

“There are tools in the shed out back,” Virgil said. “I’ll get something.”


Rocco jammed a claw-hammer into the crease and tilted the slab. Virgil got under it and pushed it aside. The exhalation of the hole was so pungent that Rocco coughed up bourbon-scented bile.

“We’ve got to go down there,” Virgil said, checking his watch. “Now!”

Rocco used the flashlight on his phone to navigate stone steps that descended in a dizzying helix. The two walked for ten, then twenty, then forty minutes. They transcended thermal climes: warm, cool, cold, then frigid. They heard noises – moans and whimpers and suckling sounds. Then the steps stopped, and they were on a flat landing of bedrock.

“Point your light here,” Virgil said.

Rocco did as he was told. In the hazy beam was a door, a green door that resembled the cover of the Grimoire. Above the door was a sign that read: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

“Your key,” Rocco said. “Let’s try it.”

They tried but failed. “No luck,” Virgil said. “It has to be a spell. An open-sesame incantation, or some shit.”

Rocco pulled the book from his backpack. “I remember reading an entry spell.” He flipped through the pages as Virgil shown the phone light. “Here it is. ‘Ostium coram me ego praecipio tibi ut aperies’!”

The green door creaked and buckled. Demonic faces, embossed, rose in stark relief on the green surface. Rocco leapt backward, almost tumbling over the shorter man.

“Don’t bitch out,” Virgil shouted. “It’s partially open. Use the claw-hammer to force it.”

As bad of an idea as it sounded, Rocco did it. He forced the green door open.

“Now what?” he asked, peering into a void that could have been an aurora borealis.

Virgil shoved him with his shoulder. “Don’t quit now, Dick. We find Bella. For the Old Man, we find her.”

Rocco wanted to stop and laugh and ask the midget if he’d read his business card, but the portal inhaled them, sucking them inside, and the door slammed behind them.

“The book,” Rocco panicked, “it’s on the other side of the door.”

The two looked back. The door was gone. “No going back,” Virgil said. “Find baby Bella. There’s a spell . . . to summon her . . . do you know it?”

Rocco racked his brain. He’d memorized it while flying over the Atlantic. “Venite ad me dulce Bella. Ego te dimittam de limbo.”

Suddenly, the veil of celestial lights parted and the reality of Infant Limbo was revealed. There were hives, as large as mountains, arrayed in ranges as high and long as the eye could see. Each hive was stippled with millions of hexagonal cells. Within the cells, Rocco saw babies – broods and broods of wriggling babies, comprising countless colonies. Attending the hives, were millions of circling insectile demons, ministering to the infants.    

“It’s a real place,” Rocco said. “I just assumed it was make-believe. Something Bishops conjured to scare parents into baptizing their children.”

“Say it again,” Virgil insisted. “The summoning spell. We’ve got to get Bella and fly her to Mr. Valerio in Tuscany. If he’s dead; if it’s too late; you get nothing, Rocco. So say it.”

Rocco did. This time there was a tremor in the comb of incarcerated babies. Keening demons remonstrated, flapping and panicking. Amidst the chaos, a baby emerged, like a maggot from offal.

“That’s her,” Virgil said, his eyes shimmering with tears. “That’s baby Bella!”

“How do you know?” Rocco asked. “It was over thirty years ago.”

Virgil beamed as the single infant floated above the pulsing, agitated organism. “She’s my sister,” he whispered. “I’d know Bella anywhere.”


With the baby secured in Virgil’s thick arms, the men searched for the green door. “It was somewhere over here,” Rocco complained. “We’ll have to walk. Follow me.”

They walked for hours, serenaded by the hungry sucking of damned souls. “It’s this way,” Rocco declared. “My gut says so.”

Virgil checked his watch. They had maybe six hours. “Perhaps you should try thinking with your brains,” he bitched.

Rocco bit his tongue, soothing himself with thoughts of kicking the wee man until he pissed blood. Just then, a figure appeared. It was amorphous, draped in darkness, its face cloaked and concealed.

“Careful,” Virgil warned, shielding his sister behind Rocco. “This could be trouble.”

Rocco looked at Virgil, then at the specter. “To whom do we have the pleasure,” he started, then the thing smiled. “Jackal,” he gasped. It could be no other. The gold grill glared, reflecting the scintillating lights of the aurora borealis.

“Lucifer said it was you,” Jackal crowed. “But I thought it was just another lie. Oh, my, my. This is indeed a treat. A triple treat: my runt brother, my deceased sister, and my killer. If I’d known it was visiting day, I’d have made cupcakes.”

Rocco tried politeness. “Sorry about the bullet to the head,” he said. “And smashing your face to smithereens. But you were an exceedingly naughty boy.”

Jackal laughed girlishly and said, “I was, wasn’t I? So naughty. But the look on your face when I cut her throat . . . oh, my, I wouldn’t trade that for my very own soul.”

“Out of our way, Jacobi,” Virgil demanded. “We’re in search of the green door.”

Jackal pulled back his dark hood and exposed his lava-red face. “Door, brother? Don’t you mean doors?” He wheeled and gestured toward not one but four doors, all green, all similar in macabre design.

“What’s this,” Rocco said, “some hellish version of Let’s Make a Deal?”

“Four doors,” Jackal answered. “One leads to Hell . . . a place of eternal torment. One leads to Heaven . . . a place of infinite joy. One leads to Purgatory . . . a place of expiation – where one is purified by fire.”

“And number four,” Rocco asked. “Up? To the villa? Does the fourth door lead us back?”

Jackal reached out with his finger, as Virgil had done earlier, and touched the tip of Rocco’s nose. “Correct, Rocco. Now all I need is an answer. Which door will it be, the green door or the green door or the green door or the . . .” he couldn’t finish. Laughter choked off the joke.

“What’s your gut telling you now?” Virgil asked, soothing his fidgeting sister.

Rocco snatched up his pant leg and retrieved his .38. “Remember this?” he said, pointing it at the same spot he’d shot Jackal ten years prior.

Jackal laughed. “You and your squirt gun are powerless down here, Rocco. Go ahead. Give it your best shot.”

Rocco did not hesitate. He fired five of the six bullets into Jackal’s skull, to no effect. The bullets melted, as if subsumed by magma. Rocco dropped the gun in disgust.

“In the underworld,” Jackal trilled, “only the dead can harm the dead. It’s in the book. Didn’t you read it, Rocco?” He then engaged the switchblade knife that he’d used to kill Celeste. “It’s right after the chapter explaining how the dead can harm the living.”

“May have skipped over that part,” Rocco said. “Let’s get back to the doors. What happens if I choose the door to Hell?”

Jackal tilted his fiery head quizzically. “You go to Hell, of course.”

“Same with Purgatory or Heaven or . . . or home?” Rocco asked.

“Of course,” Jackal answered. “Do you think me dishonest? Like the Hollywood agent that cheated me out of my ransom? I’m a man of principal, Rocco. You have my word. Now choose your fate; choose your green door.”

Virgil nudged Rocco. “Do it. Choose. Time is running out.”

Rocco examined the diminutive man as he tenderly stroked the skin of the infant. “But what if I’m wrong . . . we’re screwed. All of us . . . .”

“And we’re not already?” Virgil replied. 

Rocco nodded, then said, “Three. Door number three.”

“Why’d you pick three?” Virgil asked.

Rocco shrugged. “Gut feeling.”

“Three it is,” Jackal affirmed, flamboyantly gesturing to the green door.

It opened, did the door, slowly, slowly, slowly . . . revealing a slender, sinuous shape. A girl. Rocco recognized her immediately. “Celeste!”

Jackal cackled and gesticulated, “I knew you’d love it, Rocco! It’s our celestial Celeste . . . behind the Purgatory Door!”

“Purgatory,” Rocco reacted, bewildered. “She was sixteen, for Christ Sake! What infernal expiation would a loving God require of teenage girl?”

“You can ask Him yourself, Rocco,” Jackal laughed, “after a few thousand years in the purging flames . . . for you, Virgil, and baby Bella.” He pointed his knife at the open portal. “We had a deal . . . don’t welsh on me.”

“Celeste,” Rocco called. “Come out. We’ll take you with us. To the surface.”

The beautiful maiden attempted to cross the threshold, but was stopped. A transparent barrier prevented her. She slapped the invisible shield and screamed to be free.

Rocco pushed past Jackal and pressed his palms to the transparent barrier. Celeste did likewise, from her side of the punishing, purifying realm.

Outraged by the breach of principal, Jackal raised his knife and prepared to plunge it into Rocco’s neck. Had it not been for the gunshot, he would have done just that.

All heads turned to Virgil. He lay dead, on the frozen floor, a self-inflicted hole in his bulbous skull.

Rocco bent and scooped up baby Bella, who rested on her dead brother’s chest. “Why, Virgil?” he muttered. “Why would you do such” –

“Because,” Virgil replied, suddenly sitting upright, his body restored, “only the dead can harm the dead.” He then grasped the handle of the claw-hammer and attacked Jackal. He tore out the man’s knees, then bashed his defending hands until he reached his exposed chest. As he hoisted the hammer for the killing blow, the coup de grace, Jackal stabbed his half-brother in the eye. He twisted the haft and jabbed repeatedly, until the midget fell in a heap.

“Take that, you little bastard,” Jackal crowed. “If your slutty mother hadn’t hidden you away, Father would have killed you himself.”

“This family,” Rocco said, pressing baby Bella to his chest, “not exactly The Waltons.”

Jackal regarded the Dick. “You made a deal, Rocco. Go through the green door. Abandon all hope and enter Purgatory.”

Rocco looked at the girl through the glass, then at his handicapped assailant. “Let her out,” he said. “Release Celeste and I’ll happily take her place.”

“No!” Jackal snapped. “That wasn’t the deal. You chose the door . . . you chose Purgatory. Go, and take Bella with you, or I’ll have to summon the demons.” From the roiling walls of darkness, millions of insectile eyes shined. Rocco heard the waspy, droning drumbeat of wings coming for him . . . coming for baby Bella.

“You asked if I read the book,” he told Jackal. “I did. Carefully. And I memorized a very specific spell.”

The insectile eyes brightened as the demons closed the distance.

Shakily, Jackal lifted himself from the frozen floor, holding his mangled knees. “And what spell would that be?”

“The Grimoire called it the Spell of Clemency and Absolution,” Rocco said. “If memory serves, it goes like this: ‘Virtus dei ego te absolve peccatis tuis.’”          

Jackal snarled as the barrier between he and Celeste warbled and rippled. He watched her white hand push through, grasping for relief and freedom.

As the demons advanced, Rocco repeated the spell, yelling like a street preacher. Her pale shoulder emerged, then her face and her chest.

“Stop it,” Jackal demanded, speaking to Rocco and Celeste. “On the authority of Lucifer, I command you to stop . . . to uphold our covenant.”

“Fuck your covenant,” Rocco spat, then repeated the litany.

“Attack,” Jackal called, entreating Hell’s henchmen. As the venomous demons darted from their dark ramparts and dismembered Rocco with their pincers, Celeste slid through the threshold, out of Purgatory, into Limbo.

As he lay dying, Rocco smiled. His eyes, awash with his own blood, saw the lithe girl extract the knife from Virgil’s skull as heroically as Arthur reclaiming Excalibur from the stone. She then slit the throat of the man-lad that had slit her own. As Jackal convulsed, the girl with limitless potential grasped the claw-hammer on the stone floor. Maddened by injustice, she raged against the green doors, smashing them each in turn, until she saw stone steps. With baby Bella pressed to her breasts, she fled . . . ascending to her interrupted destiny, reclaiming her truncated life.

Alone, Rocco awoke fully assembled. His death now complete, he observed the four open doors. With no hesitation, he chose the green one.


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If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:

E. J. D’Alise submission<<link

R. G. Broxson submission<<link

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